Federal court feels budget impact

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – North Mississippi’s federal public defenders will be working for nothing some days as across-the-board budget cuts take hold until Oct. 1.
Furloughs – days off without pay – also may be in store for lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. marshals, although on Friday neither office responded to calls for information.
Meanwhile, the region’s top federal judge says that while the courts will continue to operate, changes are under way because of these agencies’ cuts.
“We’re going to make it,” says Chief U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills. “People won’t lose their ability to see a judge – that won’t change.”
But Mills also said he and the other district judges are being realistic by scheduling proceedings only Monday through Thursday because of the anticipated furloughs by prosecutors, public defenders and marshals.
“They just won’t be there,” Mills said of these support agency employees.
These adjustments are reactions to what’s called “sequestration,” the across-the-board cuts mandated by Congress in 2011 with reductions so harsh as to force budget compromises before they took effect April 1, 2013. That didn’t happen.
Sequestration reduced the federal courts’ overall funding by almost $350 million – a 5 percent cut affecting people, programs and court operations. Each court decides how to implement the funding cuts, but it is anticipated that nationwide up to 2,000 employees could be laid off this fiscal year or face furloughs.
In this region’s Federal Public Defenders Office, attorneys expect furloughs to come to about 22 days each between now and the new fiscal year Oct. 1.
But FPD’s Greg Park predicts he and his two staff colleagues will ignore the mandate and keep working without pay those days.
“We have a responsibility to indigent defendants,” said Park, who’s been with the Oxford office since it opened in October 2007. “It’s important they have quality representation.”
Each attorney in the Oxford FPD Office maintains an average, active workload of 65 cases compared nationally to 25-35 at a time. Last year, the office opened 280 cases and this year is on pace for even more.
Looking at the furlough mandate, Park said, like his fellow defenders, he has a strong belief in what he does and why. “We never gave it a second thought that we wouldn’t work on furlough days,” he said Friday.
A small cadre of private, approved attorneys, called the Criminal Justice Act or CJA Panel, backs up the FPD staff when needed. They work at a reduced rate and will be paid by a small fund, which seems to have survived the cuts from Washington, D.C.
Park, who also is FPD office manager, expressed appreciation to the district court for its efforts to find ways to accommodate the personnel difficulties.
At the Northern District U.S. Marshals Service, spokesman Jeff Woodfin said they’ve been instructed not to speak publicly about how they’ll be affected by the cuts.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs did not respond to a Daily Journal question about that marshals or the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes cases.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for North Mississippi also did not respond about budget impact.
But a few months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder said civil cases brought by DOJ and the recovery of “money on behalf of the American people” must wait if sequestration took effect because public safety – such as maintenance of federal prisons – is a priority.
Civil case activity in court should not be affected by the furloughs, and Mills said the judges will make every effort to give criminal proceedings a priority until and unless the budget difficulties continue into the next fiscal year.
“We will have to lay off a big chunk of the workforce, if that happens,” he predicted.
The district courts are operated locally, not in a centralized manner like DOJ, the Marshals Service and Federal Public Defenders Office.
Mills said this financial independence has helped the Northern District maintain greater control over its spending to continue without personnel changes. He said planning has been in the works since last year, when fiscal warnings sounded about budget cuts.
“We’ll play with the cards we’re dealt,” he added. “We’ll do the best we can.”
Park said he’s optimistic Congress will address the budget difficulties.
“It’s just going to take time,” he said.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com